Finally this week, the residents of 400 Grand Street got to hear directly from the city about their fate. For nearly three years, they’ve been desperately trying to get answers about the status of their building, which sits on one of 10 sites making up the Seward Park redevelopment project (SPURA). Monday night, two officials from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), which controls 400 Grand, appeared before Community Board 3’s land use committee. What they told residents did not go over very well.
In August of last year, we first reported the brewing conflict between the nine people who live in the 100 year old building and HPD, which along with CB3, envisions a new mixed use complex on the parcel accommodating up to 350 families. The battle was being waged by 400 Grand resident Barry Chusid, who passed away during the summer, after suffering a long illness. But his neighbors, with the help of Manhattan Legal Services, are continuing the fight to stay in the building, where rents range from $54-$250/month.
During an interview, Chusid supplied The Lo-Down with numerous documents meant to show that the residents were not ordinary renters in a city-owned building — but were actually on their way to becoming homeowners. In a September 2008 letter, city official Victor Hernandez acknowledged that the building was in the Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) Program, which allows residents to form tenant associations and purchase their apartments from the city for $250 per unit. The residents began attending training sessions, a requirement of the program. Then, Chusid said, HPD went abruptly silent. Only after calling numerous offices, did he learn the building had been mysteriously removed from the TIL portfolio.
The residents went to Community Board 3 for help. On two separate occasions, Hernandez, the HPD official, was a “no-show” at CB3 meetings. But this week, he finally emerged with some answers. The building, Hernandez argued, “never officially entered the (TIL) Program.” He conceded that the residents had attended numerous training meetings but quickly added, “we never officially signed a lease with them.”
When asked why the building was removed from the program, Hernandez replied, “the agency decided to go in a different direction.” Another HPD official, Gabriella Amabile, said the city felt the site could be used more effectively if it were redeveloped as part of the Seward Park project. If the parcel is redeveloped in the future, she said, federal law requires the city to offer the displaced residents at least three “comparable” housing options (the tenants would almost certainly be required to pay more rent wherever they moved). HPD is looking into whether there are other TIL buildings in the neighborhood where the tenants could be accommodated.
The residents were, of course, unimpressed. Ricky Rosario asked why the city would have offered them ownership in a building they knew was located in an urban renewal area. He also questioned why HPD simply left the tenants “in limbo,” why “contact with us just stopped.” Rosario said the city had lied to the residents and that officials cannot be trusted. “They are playing with our lives,” he said.
In a follow-up phone conversation today, Rosario said he wants to stay at 400 Grand Street. “New buildings are built around old buildings all the time,” he argued. “There’s no reason why they can’t build around us.”
David McWater, CB3’s land use committee chair, said he sympathized with the tenants. “Through no fault of their own, they got caught in the middle of “the larger SPURA process. While arguing that redevelopment would “help the entire community” (CB3 wants 50% of SPURA apartments to be affordable), McWater suggested 400 Grand’s residents shouldn’t be cast aside. “We need a resolution saying we support them and that they have a right to fulfill their dream of home ownership,” McWater said.
A resolution will be considered at a future CB3 meeting. In the meantime, the tenants are considering legal action. “They want to push us out to make room for new, upscale residents on the Lower East Side. That’s not right,” Rosario said.